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Motivations for the Tour in the 17th and 18th Centuries

A wide-ranging curiosity

Trying to find our way through the great sea of travel books produced between the 16th and 19th centuries by looking at the motivations of the travelers is an arduous and fairly thankless task. Rather than dividing them up into necessarily fluid and fluctuating categories, it is better to regard them as a tangle of impulses (ranging between the formative and the hedonistic, with all the possible variations, from the adventurous to the therapeutic) which find their synthesis in the idea of the journey as a «form of much-loved and splendid waste, even though motivated in a variety of ways» (Brilli, 1987).

In fact the Grand Tour, successor to the “utilitarian” journeys of previous centuries (pilgrimages, travel for trade or business purposes, diplomatic missions, etc.), had a character less constrained by a specific interest or aim and at the same time an infinitely more lofty ambition: that of seeing everything and expatiating on everything. Above and beyond individual cases, boundless in their diversity, the driving force behind this European migration can in fact be summed up in the term curiosity. And if it was curiosity that drove travelers, no field of inquiry can be excluded a priori: from the intellectual interest stirred by the new science to the lure of classical culture, the study of legal political and administrative systems, an interest in economics, be it that of agriculture or industry, and a fascination with the vagaries of politics (for Joseph Addison, Italy was the most eccentric and varied museum of political forms in the world); an ideal place for collecting things (whether works of art or wonders of the natural world), for the cure of melancholy, an authentic mal du siècle which we must thank for the launch of a vogue that was to last for centuries, and for diversion and hedonism; and then there was the thaumaturgic power of travel, the love of art (including music and the theater) and even a simple matter of fashion.

A prismatic literature

The number of accounts of journeys made must have quickly reached vast proportions, if as early as 1691 Maximilien Misson, author of the celebrated Nouveau voyage d'Italie, had declared them unclassifiable. The impressions of travel that have been handed down to us through this literature are repositories of a truly encyclopedic culture. The range of themes that they cover is broadened by the personal preference displayed by each writer in emphasizing one aspect rather than another. For this reason there is absolutely no hope of classifying them by motivation.

This literary genre, therefore, comprises all the motives that stemmed from the encounter between the vast and heterogeneous array of interests typical of 18th-century culture (ranging from political, economic and cultural aspects to social phenomena, without neglecting geographical features and environmental conditions, and from detailed descriptions of libraries and picture galleries to discussions of the planning or gardens of a city and studies of the character or social makeup of a people, etc.) and the predominant personal inclinations of each traveler.

The vast figurative output

Pittore di paesaggi in un acquerello del XVIII secolo

The production of figurative art was also immense, on a par with the literary one. In the accounts of travelers so heteronomous in the interests they pursued, the chapter dealing with art, to be seen and reproduced, is often dominant. The Tour was the source of a vast output of figurative art, fueled by painters hired for the purpose at home prior to the journey or on the spot, when finances would not run to such a long engagement. Sometimes it was the travelers' own talent that allowed them to express their personal feelings in figurative language. The production of images was as great or greater than the literary one: engravings, prints, etchings and maps, especially of Rome. The vedutismo that was later to become so popular would contribute to the 19th-century phenomenon of collecting, with its repercussions on the material and intellectual reality of the countries in which it took root.

A separate sector: archeology

A sector that deserves to be considered separately for the cultural impact that it had is the one linked to the “rediscovery” of Paestum and Doric architecture, along with the excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii and Agrigento: an opportunity to take a look at the state of archeology before and after Winckelmann.


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